Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder now in a London jail awaiting possible deportation to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, has in short order become one of the most polarizing figures in the world.
He is reviled by members of the United States government yet regarded as a hero by millions who see him as striking a blow at Washington and other entrenched powers by revealing their activities to the light of day.
But while his politics certainly appear to lean left, his supporters don't fall into any sort of neat category. Instead, Mr. Assange is finding support from the conspiratorially minded, whatever their political persuasion.
Take one of Assange's most unlikely defenders, the Fox television personality Glenn Beck.
Mr. Beck, with his fulminations about socialist conspiracies at the heart of the Obama administration and warnings about a "shadow government" behind President Obama seeking to deprive Americans of their liberties, is rarely mistaken for a lefty.
Yet his deep distrust of government puts him on similiar grounds to Assange.
"I don't support this guy. I don't support what he's doing, but I'm really torn on this story," Beck told his audience this week. "He is exposing the fact that our governments all around the world have been lying to us. It's been a job we've been trying to do but been pilloried over and over for doing it. I don't want a guy to go to jail or to be silenced for something he didn't do. Again, I don't support him. But I want you to the look into the crime that he committed to warrant an international manhunt."
What is it that Assange believes and hopes to accomplish?
Based on his writings and interviews in the year since he became an international celebrity – with Russia calling for him to be awarded the Nobel prize, famous journalist-activists like John Pilger standing up for him in court, and members of the US Congress painting him as something close to public enemy No. 1 – he is less a whistle-blower than a form of anarchist, someone who sees all government secrecy as dangerous.
A whistleblower in the true sense of the word reveals illegal or immoral behavior from within an organization, taking a stand against his corporate or national loyalties in service of exposing a rot within. The information they reveal is typically tailored to a specific crime or injustice. But WikiLeaks, with bits of scandal drowned in a flood of documents that range from the banal to the prurient to the enlightening, is something else again.
To be sure, Assange says he wants to shed light on dark secrets, but he also says he's happy if that leads to more secrecy, since it will weaken the systems of the US and other governments.
Assange himself appears to believe he's in the vanguard of a struggle against an entire international system that he clearly abhors. Consider this Dec. 31, 2006, blog post on the IQ.org website, owned by Assange, titled "The non linear effects of leaks on unjust systems of governance."
"The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie," he wrote. "This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive 'secrecy tax') and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power."
'Secrecy tax' and 'stovepiping'
In the US, former State Department and other government officials have worried that just such a "secrecy tax" – with the recompartmentalizing of information flows that were relaxed after 9/11 to improve US intelligence analysis – could be a result of WikiLeaks' release of 250,000 State Department cables to several news organizations, along with their gradual publication on WikiLeaks' website.
Wayne White, a retired senior State Department intelligence analyst, told the Monitor last month that he worried that a rolling back of intelligence reforms could be WikiLeaks' biggest legacy. "I helped work on trying to end the suffocating stovepiping that led to flawed decisions," Mr. White said. "They’re going to re-stovepipe, which is precisely what we spent a decade trying to stamp out, with the US government's left hand often not knowing what the right was doing."
Why is that a problem? Because people like White fear, if it were to happen, that the US will be less likely to piece together bits of disparate information and head off terror plots against it. This, say White and others, is a big reason that terror attacks such as 9/11 have succeeded.
Assange disagrees. Earlier this month, he told Time magazine that pushing the US towards greater secrecy is a goal, and implies that it's more likely to push the current US system closer to collapse.
Assange, the guru of managerial efficiency?
"Since 2006, we have been working along this philosophy that organizations which are abusive and need to be [in] the public eye. If their behavior is revealed to the public, they have one of two choices: one is to reform in such a way that they can be proud of their endeavors, and proud to display them to the public," he told Time. "Or the other is to lock down internally and to balkanize, and as a result, of course, cease to be as efficient as they were. To me, that is a very good outcome, because organizations can either be efficient, open and honest, or they can be closed, conspiratorial and inefficient."
Other writings of Assange make it clear he sees himself as something of a revolutionary.
In a Nov. 2006 essay called "State and Terrorist Conspiracies" (which begins quoting Teddy Rosevelt as saying "Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsbility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to befoul this unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics, is the first task of statesmanship"), Assange writes: "to radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly.... We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that emoblden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not."
In this text, he appears to believe that personal liberty is severely threatened by government secrets. "A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end," he writes. "To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them." He then advocates the use of misinformation, as well as "throttling" information flows within a regime by, say, leading it to increase its own internal secrecy.
That essay makes no mention of the US – referring generally to authoritarian regimes and their "conspiracies." But the primary target of his releases so far has largely been the United States, which as the sole-remaining superpower is a good target for someone who wants to upend what they see as an unjust international order.
In Assange's public statements and methods there are also shades of "crypto-anarchism," an approach popular in hacker circles that aims to use computer networks and encryption to both evade controls by states and to release information that they want to keep secret, all in the service of maintaining an Internet beyond the reach of any international laws.
Assange himself is a renowned writer of encryption software and a hacker who almost went to jail for his activities as a young man.
His lawyer says Assange has distributed massive, 1.4 GB encrypted file to thousands of supporters that will be decoded and released as a sort of "thermonuclear device" is anything happens to him.
(This article was edited after posting to change the word "charges" to "allegations.")